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Popular Science fiction likes to pretend that we can travel faster than light, even though science itself has been telling us for a long time that we can’t.  As far as we know, there’s simply no way to break the universal speed limit, but culturally we seem to devote a lot of time to asking and answering the question: “But what would happen to us if we could?”

But is going against the theory of relativity for fictitious purposes really so very bad?  Just because it’s an accepted theory, do we have to hold it up as a law which all true science fiction must follow?  According to David L. Burkhead, who wrote a fastinating post, “Science, Science Fiction, and the Possible,” several months ago, not necessarily.  Because after all, scientific theories change all the time.  Some of the technology we have now would seem just as ridiculous to scientists a hundred years ago as faster-than-light travel seems to scientists now.   The theory of relativity is just what people named it as, a theory.  And while it is a good theory, and it describes what parts of the universe we can observe better than earlier theories, it’s actually very possible that the “traveling faster than light is a no-no” bit has some exceptions we can figure out how to take advantage of

So that means FTL is completely fair game in science fiction, and anybody who says otherwise is just being picky, right?  Well, not exactly.  You see, it’s one thing to write that someday people will find some way to break the light barrier, but it’s another thing to write that someday someone will create technology that allows us to completely ignore the effects of relativity as we’ve been observing them so far, so people can go happily buzzing around in space, hopping from star to star and back like they were nearby islands in the pacific, as often happens in popular space fiction.

When all the “picky” science fiction critics get upset over FTL in science fiction, I don’t think it’s the mere possibility of faster than light travel that they’re objecting to.  It’s probably more the fact that, while inhabitants of the more famous space-travel universes are perfectly comfortable hopping from star to star, they seem a little hesitant to use time travel to solve story problems.  If something bad happens, and time travel itself wasn’t the cause, nobody really considers time travel as a solution; they just jump to another star system to fight the next battle, or whatever it is they’re doing.

And this is a bit strange because, according to Stephen Hawking (I believe in his book A Briefer History of Time, but it might have been The Universe in a Nutshell), faster-than-light travel between two planets and time travel to the past really end up being the same thing if the theory of relativity holds.  And of course, as anybody who was forced to study relativity in high school already knows, all you have to do to travel to the future is go somewhere very fast and come back, letting relativity take its toll as your home ages faster than you.  So even if the theory of relativity doesn’t hold in all cases, it doesn’t make sense, given that the theory of relativity does seem to work most of the time, that a civilization could find a way around it with also gaining the ability to time travel, and yet the popular space traveling civilizations never seem quite as aware of time travel as they do of space travel.

So why doesn’t science fiction pop culture ever seem to acknowledge that the theory of relativity even exists?  I think it’s because we’re all a little bit sad to have figured out the world is round and we’ve been to every continent on it.  We like the idea that maybe there’s another land out there, even another civilization, that we haven’t found just yet, and we fantasize about venturing out like explorers of old and bumping into it.    The trouble is though, actually getting out into space to find the aliens seems more and more difficult the more we learn, so as dreamers, we invent fictional technology to help ourselves pretend it will be easy some day, like voyages on earth used to be.  Despairing of finding all we’re looking for close to home, we want to escape the confines of light years and the human life span, but relativity says “no,” so we ignore it.

So while I’m not one of those people who say, “Thou shalt not even dream of traveling faster than the speed of light in science fiction,” I do think it would be nice to see more catchy stories (I mean stories that people other than scientists can get into) that treat relativity with at least some respect.  It might be hard to write about an advanced civilization with FTL enabling technology AND a government working hard to make sure nobody traveled to the wrong time period in the process of getting somewhere, but it would certainly be interesting.  Light space-hopping is fun, but time and space travel together is a concept that I would like to see more of.

If you know of any good FTL stories that Do treat space an time as one, then I would love to hear about them.  Comments are at the top of the page.